Part II: Dialectic of Enlightenment and How Demythologizing Gives Birth to New Mythologies

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno make an interesting and somewhat unexpected connection between the structure of Kantian philosophy and culture industry. According to Kant, the transcendental subject constitutes objects of experience. This means that we provide the laws structuring reality. In other words, given that we bring a priori the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding to the chaos “out there”and thus constitute the objects of possible experience, it turns out that the experience of the transcendental subject is in a sense circular. Here Horkheimer and Adorno see a parallel with culture industry.  For example, Hollywood film producers present us with images bestowing meaning. That is, the producer endows the images with certain structures, thus constituting them as does the Kantian subject. Prior to the film being made, the producer and his colleagues get together and decide what precisely people want to see. Thus, in our movie experience, we encounter objects of experience pre-constituted by the director and his/her team based on perceived cultural values (in this case, cultural values and interests that sell). So the system of the Enlightenment (a system of theoretical thought) and the “system” of culture come to be self-contained. Consider how this cultural constitution or, in more poststructuralist language, construction of social reality and subjectivities impacts our daily life. From the construction of the “terrorist-other” whom we instructed to fear and hate to what it is to be “feminine” or “masculine,” we are constantly bombarded with competing discourses, social customs, and practices, all of which shape our perceptions of ourselves, our relation to the other, our roles, the “place” of others, and so forth.

Revisiting the theme of enlightenment rationality as “purely functional,” Horkheimer and Adorno explain that such is its logical end. Why? Because with the de(con)struction, dismissal and death of a telos connected to rationality, reason becomes functional or instrumental.  As a result, enlightenment does away with difference or alterity. Interestingly, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analyses and conclusions are very much in harmony with insights foregrounded by postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Heidegger. Because reason no longer has any goals outside itself, pure reason moves increasingly toward unreason as there is nothing regulating this “emptied out” rationality. (Of course, Foucault would not claim that this is a necessary movement). This is part of the dialectic of enlightenment; it drives its self-critique such that the basis of its own rationality is destroyed. Only after enlightenment has eliminated all, then (according to enlightenment theory), we have acceptable meaning. This is reminiscent of certain—not all of course—expressions of analytic philosophy, wherein philosophy becomes completely irrelevant to human existence.  Here thought is meaningful only after the sacrifice of meaning. The result of this formalization of reason means that since there are no external criteria (but only internal criteria), this hollowed-out rationality can then be used positively or negatively. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, this is the kind of rationality employed for example, in fascism, as well as Marquis de Sade. De Sade, as Horkheimer and Adorno would be quick to emphasize, is not illogical, but rather thinks with amazing clarity and has understood that enlightenment thinking accepts no tradition or external values; thus, it can come up with its own rationality and can eliminate pity, compassion, and the like. So de Sade can set up narratives of dissoluteness, engage in violence against women and others, and at the same time can present a “coherent” system. Examples such as these support the authors’ thesis that with the ushering in of instrumental, hollow enlightened rationality, “pure reason becomes unreason.”

Part I: Dialectic of Enlightenment and How Demythologizing Gives Birth to New Mythologies

In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno argue, on the one hand, that enlightenment emerges from myth, and on the other hand, that enlightenment  can (and does) return back to myth.[1] “Myth” in this context refers to something like Homeric myth. As the authors explain, “[f]alse clarity is only another name for myth. Myth was always obscure and luminous at once.”[2]With “false clarity” they point to the idea that reason alone is insufficient, always falling short, and when reason fails to recognize its short-comings, we then revert back to myth. Stately slightly differently, myth or regression in tradition consists in “false clarity,” which is in essence inadequate reflection.  Thus, on Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s account, it seems that to revert to myth necessarily involves some kind of failure of reason.

The core thesis of the book is a kind of Foucauldian power/knowledge thesis. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, reason was invented from myth (it emerged in Homer) and is used to control nature. Critics of this view, such as Louis Dupré, would agree that modern reason has indeed been downgraded to a mere calculative, instrumental reason; however, on Dupré’s reading, this devolution occurred in the historical period we call the Enlightenment. Thus, we have two different analyses of the Western tradition: (1) Dupré view, which is the “traditional” position or “rupture theory” and (2) Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s thesis, which is often called the “continuity thesis (Nietzsche and Heidegger hold variations on the “continuity thesis”).  The latter interpretation says, in effect, “don’t stop with modernity; rather, one must go all the way back to Homer and to the Greeks. Of course, different variations of the story point to different villains as the culprits leading us astray. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the ancient Greeks are more manipulative and destructive (i.e., “mastering”) than one might think. In addition, the authors claim that the “turn to the self” did not come about with Descartes, but rather it emerged with myth; thus, the “self” concept has been increasingly strengthened over time. Those disagreeing with this variation of the continuity thesis might counter by pointing to a Greek figure such as Aristotle and claiming that his desire to obtain knowledge is driven by admiration and wonder rather than in a desire for power and mastery over nature. However, someone else might point to Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery and his negative (i.e. extremely misogynistic) view of women and mount a convincing argument that knowledge and power were in fact intimately connected in Aristotle’s mythic views of the “inferior” others in Greek society.

A second thesis of the book is that with enlightenment (as understood in this text) we fine a kind of embedded tendency towards self-destruction. For example, in the historical period called the Enlightenment, every established view that has not yet justified itself through reason is challenged. For example, Descartes with his methodological doubt proclaims that we must wipe away all past views, established traditions, and so forth in order to begin anew and eventually found a system upon some “solid,” indubitable foundation. With Kant we likewise find similar sentiments, as he makes the bold claim that prior to him metaphysics did not exist!

By the time the positivists come along, this ethos in particular, in reference to God is basically, “if you cannot define God, then don’t talk about him.” Given this analysis, Horkheimer and Adorno say that rationality becomes functional. In Kant, “pure reason” has no content and exemplifies functional, calculating rationality. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, we end up with a “self-castration” of reason. Reason deprives itself of all power with the result that all it can do is describe “facts.” Once the content is emptied, there is no basis for critique. Enlightenment, then, is a relapse into myth and now we just describe the “facts” and have statistics. Summing up this picture, Horkheimer and Adorno write,

In the authority of universal concepts the Enlightenment detected a fear of the demons through whose effigies human beings had tried to influence nature in magic rituals. From now on matter was finally to be controlled without the illusion of immanent powers or hidden properties. For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion.[3]

Thus, we have a kind of totalitarianism applied to thought. That is, enlightenment is totalizing as only a function can be. Numbers and quantities are the name of the game.

For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry. Unity remains the watchword from Parmenides to Russell. All gods and qualities must be destroyed.[4]

Functionalized instrumental reason has no content; the demythologizing, however, as postmodern thinkers highlight repeatedly, creates its own mythologies. “False clarity is only another name for myth.”[5]

Is it possible to overcome the dialectic of enlightenment? First, Horkheimer and Adorno point to the necessity of enlightenment to reflect on itself.[6] The problem is that the Enlightenment itself is characterized by a spirit of critique; yet, it fails to critique itself. So first we must subject the Enlightenment to its own critique. A second problem with the Enlightenment is that it swallows up particularity. Horkheimer and Adorno claim that reality itself (as well as the language we use to discourse about reality) is composed of irresolvable tensions.[7] Here they employ a Hegelian idea, viz., if one analyzes a concept, it can first come into existence only by denial (negation). The concept is the beginning of the dialectical process, not the endpoint. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the dialectic of enlightenment is a problem, but dialectic itself is not. After all, dialectic subjects language and rationality to critique and causes it to recognize its own shortcomings and limitations.

Of course, the Enlightenment itself was not a homogenous movement.  There were non-traditional and marginalized voices, figures such as Frantz Fanon whose critique of the false and exclusive narratives of the Enlightenment have much to add to this conversation. (For more on Fanon’s critical engagement with Enlightenment thinkers and his notion of a “new humanism,” see this series.).

Lastly, given the current state of affairs politically and economically in the West and this country in particular, I shall leave you with this passage as “food for thought.” Does anyone hear Foucauldian (or other) resonances here? If so, which? Is a similar situation playing itself out at present? If yes (or no or yes and no), please elaborate, as I would love to hear your thoughts.

The increase in economic productivity which creates the conditions for a more just world also affords the technical apparatus and the social groups controlling it a disproportionate advantage over the rest of the population. The individual is entirely nullified in the face of the economic powers. These powers are taking society’s domination over nature to unimagined heights. While individuals as such are vanishing before the apparatus they serve, they are provided for by that apparatus and better than ever before. In the unjust state of society the powerlessness and pliability of the masses increase with the quantity of goods allocated to them.[8]


[1] N.b., “Enlightenment” with a lower case “e” speaks of enlightenment in general, whereas when capitalized, it refers to the period called the Enlightenment.

[2] Dialectic of Enlightenment, xvii.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., xvii.

[6] Ibid., xvii.

[7] Ibid. 11.

[8] Ibid., xvii.